Ka Mua, Ka Muri – Walking backwards into the future

Posted by on Mar 29, 2016 in Blog | 6 comments

I am back in Perth after a wonderful week catching up with friends from our New Zealand days and lecturing at Auckland’s Laidlaw College. We attended the Good Friday service at Mt Roskill Baptist Church where I once was pastor, and the recently arrived Senior Pastor of the church Ed Karlsen reminded us of the Maori proverb, Ka mua, Ka muri – we walk into the future backwards.

There are many thought provoking Maori proverbs and sentiments – the one I find most meaningful probably being that we are guardians (kiatiaki) of the earth which we receive as a sacred gift (taonga). Maori culture reminds us that we do not inherit the earth, but borrow it from our children.

However that will not be my focus here. Rather let’s look at the earlier sentiment – Ka mua, Ka muri… walking backwards into the future. We so often talk about the future of the Church and the need to adapt to new realities, and I would be among the first to affirm the importance of this. But it seems to me that we must hold on to the Ka mua, Ka muri insight  as we move forward… We should move forward facing backwards, mindful of all that has gone before. We can’t see the future, just as we can’t see where we are going when we walk backwards, but we can allow ourselves to be guided by those who have gone before and what they learnt along the way.

As we do so, I’d suggest a dozen sights we should hold on to… Your list might be different, and I imagine if you ask me on another day, some others might strike me more forcefully. Truth is there is so much to learn from the past – far more than I can fit into this blog post. But right now, here are my top twelve…

  1. Sacrifice is normal: In an age when we are tempted to think that hardship, struggle and sacrifice are signs that something is deeply wrong, the longer history of the church reminds us that they are normal. Indeed Jesus instructed us to take up our cross daily and follow him. I am not sure why we so rarely hear messages on that topic now, as I have not been informed of any change to Jesus’ invitation. I have been talking about sayings… Here is one from the early church. The blood of the martyr’s is the seed of the church. Sobering, isn’t it? Ask the ancients what they found to be the most effective form of church growth and after a few moments pause they would say ‘martyrdom’. If you objected that this represents a sure way to reduce the number of Christ followers, they might go on to remind you that they differentiated between white and red martyrs. White martyrs are those who through the goodness and sacrifice of their life proved their authentic love for Jesus – the white representing the purity of their lifestyle. ‘All Christians,’ they would say, ‘ are called to be white martyrs.’ Red martyrs are those who in addition to serving Christ by sacrificial living, also prove their allegiance by shedding their life blood. They would expand a little and add ‘and no one ever becomes a red martyr before being a white martyr first.’ A genuinely sacrificial and different lifestyle was seen as an indispensable normal for Christian living.
  2. God can be trusted: Realistically, the church should never have sprung into life. The motley crew who made up the early disciples were anything but promising. Have you ever noticed that even though most were fisherman, when they were with Jesus they never caught anything unless he performed a miracle? So this was not a ‘sure to succeed regardless’ group. Yet they go on to not only birth the church, but to decisively change the world for the good. Read the history of the founding of the church and it’s nigh impossible not to see the finger prints of God everywhere. It is one of multiple reminders that God can be trusted. Those willing to hold on to and live by this truth will help to re establish it again for a coming generation. As we march into the future backwards we should do so with the gentle reassurance that God can be trusted.
  3. Resurrection is real: With Easter Sunday just a few days behind us, it is worth remembering that we are supposed to live in the light of Easter. Comforting though Easter is, this is not its primary purpose. It comes as a challenge – ‘live in the light of this.’ It is a daring challenge to leave fear behind. It is also an invitation to hope. No matter how bleak things might sometimes seem to be, the last word has not been spoken. It might be Friday, but Sunday’s coming. Crucifixion is followed by resurrection. You cannot believe in Easter and then live timidly.
  4. Our finest moments are when we champion the cause of the poor and vulnerable: The history of the church is a mixed bag. There are lofty moments that make you want to proudly shout out – ‘these are my people and this is my story’. But only the naïve would claim that this is the only narrative. Too often we have failed and fallen far short of who we have been called to be. We must look long and hard at those times and ask ‘so what to learn from them as we march backwards into the future?’ One very obvious truth is that our finest moments have been closely linked to times when we have championed the cause of the poor and vulnerable – when we have taken seriously that all people are made in the image of God, and that all people matter to God. None (as in none, none, none) are excluded from that statement. It was the part of the magic of the early church that it reached out to those routinely overlooked by society. In Christ they discovered that there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but that they were all one in Christ Jesus. It was a truth that no other group had discovered, and it remains one of Christianity’s greatest contributions to this planet – one we are still struggling to fully grasp and live by.
  5. Power corrupts – so we should stop grasping for it: If we have had fine moments, we have had dismal ones. A common theme emerges from our darkest moments – that of having great power and influence and then abusing it. Ironically one of the things that troubles many Christians about the journey of the church into the future is that it has to do so without the power props from the past. It is as though we wonder if we will be able to survive without the ability to control legislation and the political process. We need to think again. Our vulnerability could be one of our greatest strengths. We might again discover a credible prophetic voice.
  6. Listening is required – both to God and to God’s world: The church has a message to proclaim to the world. The trouble with being part of a ‘proclaiming community’ is that it can lure us into thinking that we never need to listen. We think that we are in the business of telling, not listening. But if we don’t learn to listen, we will forget how to listen to God. And God often speaks to us through what takes place in the world. Habakkuk 2:1 says ‘I will look and see what he will say to me…’ Looking to see what God says… I find the image powerful. We hear the voice of God when we watch the world with eyes wide open… Watch its news broadcasts, movies, artwork, games, power plays, music, poetry, ailments, obsessions – all have the potential to speak to us. At any one time culture speaks with both the voice of the divine and the demonic. Learning to differentiate between the two is not always easy. Cultural artefacts do not come with tidy labels ‘from God’ or ‘from Satan’. The prophets of old discovered that God often spoke through an unexpected voice – the Assyrians, the Babylonians, Balaam’s donkey. Walking backwards into the future should lead us to expect some comparable surprises.
  7. Find ways to connect – and remember, creativity is a God given gift: Charles Wesley is often credited with lamenting ‘Why should the devil have all the good music’ – and then adapting his style to connect to the pub culture of his day. (Actually, a fact checker on that will probably show that it was Rev Rowland Hill who in a sermon in London in 1844 [long after Wesley’s death] said, ‘Why should the devil have all the good tunes’- whatever, the sentiment is valid whoever expressed it first). Though church services today tend to entertain worshippers seated in rows watching the performance from the front, this is only one of many forms of community worship that the church has embraced in her history. Better moments have been breakthrough times when we have been able to connect with ordinary people. They have often unleashed movements of great creativity that have seen high levels of involvement and participation. I fear that we are losing touch with ordinary people – and need to learn to reconnect at that level.
  8. Beware, the Pharisee is never far from our own heart: The Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ day get a terrible press as their antics are exposed in scripture. It is so easy to shake our head at them and pray, ‘I thank you that I am not like other religious leaders – that I am not like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day…’ Realistically these depressing accounts are so fully recorded in scripture because they remain a perpetual risk for the church (why else record them in such detail). No one sets out intending to become a Pharisee – but all too easily we can fall into the trap of self righteousness and wagging the finger of judgement at everyone else. The sad reality is that most surveys of people outside of the church find them complaining that religious people think themselves better than everyone else – which was essentially the complaint made against the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. Our history teaches us that it is wise to pause regularly and ask, ‘Have I become a Pharisee?’
  9. Sisters and brothers in Christ are not the enemy: I have been studying theology for a fair while, and in that time have reached conclusions on many different issues. I am deeply conscious that others who have studied essentially the same material have, for a variety of reasons, often reached different conclusions. At times the differential is slight, but sometimes not. Sometimes it feels as though a gaping chasm separates. Moving backwards into the future will helpfully highlight that heresy trials are hopeless and that treating sisters and brothers in Christ as the enemy because their conclusions are different to our own, is fraught with danger. There were religious divisions in Jesus’ day – the Pharisees and the Saducees disagreed strongly about the afterlife. Doctrinal diversity is part of business as usual for the church, and we should approach it charitably.
  10. Ordinary people can make an extraordinary difference: As we look back we will spot the enormous contribution made to the church by ‘non-professionals’. While some denominations make more of the clergy-laity distinction than others, all have been deeply impacted by the voluntary contribution made by ordinary people at the level of the local parish or congregation. I fear that this is currently at risk. We are seeing the professionalization of ministry. Local gatekeepers are disappearing. As we look at the past, I think this should cause a red light to start flashing. The increasing disengagement of the average member of the congregation is not a good omen. We need to ask why this is happening and how it can be rectified. When ordinary people work together they can quickly make an extraordinary difference.
  11. Don’t be fooled by glitz and glamour: There is no short cut to godliness, and the journey of sanctification requires faith to be lived out on a daily basis. Throughout its history the church has yearned for short cuts to holiness. Many false leads have been followed. They have promised much, but have almost always disappointed. We should heed the insight of Micah 6:8 ‘He has shown all you people what it good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ No way to fast track that. It is a one step at a time journey that heads in the same direction. We should not be diverted from it.
  12. God’s Word is powerful – read it, memorise it, preach it, live it…: Nehemiah recounts the renewal and revival that came to the Israelites when they resumed reading the scriptures. Likewise church history recounts that periods of revival and renewal are accompanied by a fresh love for and obedience to the scriptures. If we are to heed the lessons learnt from walking backwards into the future we will read the Bible, memorise it, preach it and live by it. We will do so with imagination and sensitivity to both the Bible world and our own… But we will have a fresh confidence in and love for the Bible as the Spirit’s book – the way in which God continues to speak to us and guide us…

Ka mua, Ka muri – which sights remain with you as you walk backwards into the future? Feel free to add them to the comments at the end of this post.

As always, nice chatting…


  1. Thanks Brian – a touch of nostalgia from me to be reminded again of some significant Maori sayings. I love this one and as a history teacher from way back – it held a special interest. Scripture often reminds us of the importance of the past while pointing us toward a better future – pity so many today only grasp half the message.

  2. All great points….. I would add one along the lines that we must become accepting of the fact that life is uncertain. Things have, and usually will, come at us from left field. This was a significant experience in OT times!
    A promise of certainty in life is not a realistic reflection of life.

    • Thanks Barry. An important insight and a reminder that faith is birthed in the midst of uncertainty – it really wouldn’t be faith otherwise.

  3. Thank you Brian……Blessings to you all

  4. Great article, I’m pleased I found it and I look forward to hearing more from you in the future.
    Can I just correct the Maori proverb; the word ‘mura’ does not exist in Maori, to the best of my knowledge (unless it’s a dialect thing). The word is ‘mua’. Fascinatingly, the sense of the proverb is contained within the deep structure and meaning of these two words – ‘mua’ refers to what is in front, and also means the past, while ‘muri’ refers to what is behind, and also means the future!

    • Thanks Silvia. I appreciate your comments and have made the changes lest others duplicate my error.

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